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Top Obama aide talks of cynicism and hope at Beloit College graduation

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
May 10, 2010
— David Axelrod didn’t slip any interesting political notes into his speech at Beloit College’s commencement Sunday. Or maybe he did.

The longtime political operative guided Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. Today, he is senior adviser to the president.


Whether it’s the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or Mideast peace negotiations, Axelrod is often the White House’s front man, signaling the president’s positions on the issues of the day.


Axelrod discussed none of that in his address to the Class of 2010.


He did mention the economy several times.


“I know that some of you have already made plans. You’ve landed a job, which isn’t easy in an economy that is just pulling out of a horrific tailspin, and nobody knows that more than people that live in the greater Beloit area,” he said.


Axelrod did not mention political parties or Tea Parties, or Fox News or congressional infighting, but it sounded as though he had those things in mind when he contrasted cynicism with the idealism he saw in the young people in front of him:


“Whatever you choose to do with your life, don’t withdraw from your obligations to the larger community or lose faith that each of us has the power to change the world in ways small and large. Because in the end, I believe the greatest long-term challenge we face as a country isn’t the economy—as difficult as turning around the economy has been. It isn’t the specter of war and terrorism or climate change, as pressing as those are. It isn’t the deficit …


“It’s the growing cynicism that turns good people away from the public square, that cedes the decisions that will shape our future to cable bloviators, powerful interests and shortsighted politicians,” he said.


Asked before the speech what they’d say to Axelrod if they got the chance, Class of 2010 members had some related thoughts.


“It was refreshing to watch a political campaign that was relatively devoid of a lot of negativity and cynicism,” said, Liz Ziner, a political science major from suburban Chicago, who said the Obama campaign renewed her faith in American ideals.


Daniel Zipse of Portland, Ore., said he would tell Axelrod of his disappointment in the wake of the Obama campaign’s message of hope.


“We haven’t seen as much progress and change as we hoped for, but I’m not going to blame them for that,” said Zipse, an international relations major. “ … I know politics is very slow, and we have a big political divide and a big clash of cultures in this country, and it’s kind of hard to overcome.”


Others had more concrete thoughts for Axelrod.


“Thanks for health care reform,” said Betsy Huggins of Louisville, Ky., a poli sci and theater major.


“Let’s work on immigration,” said Marisa Huston of Ann Arbor, Mich., who attended an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C., in April.


“Work on keeping the TRIO programs. They help a lot of first-generation, low-income students,” said Gina Jacobson, a history major from Beloit, referring to the federally funded programs that help disadvantaged students.


Axelrod didn’t get to hear those words, but he might have been answering them in his speech, noting the young people who energized the Obama campaign:


“It’s people your age who changed the world, just as it always has been, so in closing I’ll just say that we will do our best to hand it off to you in good shape. All I ask is that you keep on doing what you’re doing. Keep inspiring us, right now. Hold our feet to the fire. Commit your hands to restoring the public faith because before long it will be the public’s faith in you.”


Nicolai Levin, an anthropology major from Marengo, Ill., had four words for Axelrod: “Keep your speech short.”


Axelrod obliged, clocking in at about 17 minutes.



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